Soil and water collected from the shores of Belle Isle are the foundation for one of the displays in “DEPTH,” forming an ever-changing 3D landscape as microbial colonies consume, expel waste and die.

Soil and water collected from the shores of Belle Isle are the foundation for one of the displays in “DEPTH,” forming an ever-changing 3D landscape as microbial colonies consume, expel waste and die.

Photo provided by Science Gallery Detroit

Art and science make waves in exhibition ‘DEPTH’

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published July 23, 2019


DETROIT — A decade ago, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland decided that one of the best ways to get the public excited about science was through art.

It might have sounded like an odd mix, but in the years since, it has proven to be a successful experiment — and one that now has local roots.

This summer, Michigan State University’s Science Gallery Detroit is presenting the exhibition “DEPTH” at the Michigan Science Center in midtown Detroit. On display through Aug. 17, “DEPTH” looks at water through more than 25 interactive displays that merge art with science.

Admission to “DEPTH” is free, and with it comes free general admission to the Michigan Science Center.

MSU’s Science Gallery Detroit is the only North American branch of Science Gallery International, which has other locations in London, Dublin, Venice, Melbourne, Bengaluru and Rotterdam. It started in 2017 and hosted its first pop-up exhibition last year. Although their goal, as spelled out on the Science Gallery Detroit website, is to “act as a collider of art and science, and to engage 15-25 year olds in connective, participative, and surprising ways … by combining emerging research and ideas from the worlds of art, science, design, and technology,” their exhibits speak to all ages.

“(This is) the world’s only university network focused on engaging people with big ideas focusing on science and art,” said Science Gallery Detroit Director Jeff Grabill, associate provost for teaching, learning and technology at MSU. “How can we get people really excited about solving the world’s biggest problems? Science has never solved problems by itself, and neither has art.”

Grabill said “the secret sauce” in these exhibitions is the presence of 18- to 25-year-olds who are trained to engage visitors. He said exhibition visitors can expect to be greeted by one of the six or seven student mediators who are on hand at any given time.

“It’s highly interactive and very conversational,” Grabill said.

One of the student mediators is Shanmin Sultana, of Warren, a Wayne State University sophomore who hopes to become a physician’s assistant. This is her second summer as a student mediator. She said it’s great that admission is free.

“I know a lot of kids don’t have (easy) access to higher education,” Sultana said. “This is a great place to expose them to science and art, and build that foundation.”

The artists “are very passionate about their pieces,” and Sultana said she’s learned a lot about water, including both its scarcity and its recyclability.

“Especially with Flint being right next door, it shows how important it is to keep our water clean, so we can prevent that from happening (again),” she said.

Artworks use elements like discarded plastic bags, sound, algae and soil to explore water issues. In some cases, works will evolve and change over the course of the exhibition due to growth or decay.

“Precarity: Water and Power,” one of the displays, was assembled by Amber Pearson, assistant professor of geography at MSU, and Joshua Miller, study coordinator at Northwestern University. Pearson said they gave cameras to people living in places such as Flint, Arizona, Detroit, Kenya and Puerto Rico to document their struggles with water.

“People are living in these very precarious situations,” said Pearson, noting that they don’t know where their water is coming from, or whether its quality is appropriate for consumption.

Joan B. Rose, a water microbiologist, 2016 Stockholm Water Prize laureate and professor in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has created a display seeking input from exhibition visitors to determine what people know about water and health.

“A lot of people live with health impacts because they have water, but it’s not of sufficient quality,” Rose said. “We’ve got to think about affordability and investment … in our aging infrastructure.”

Climate change and flooding are global concerns.

“Flooding is the No. 1 threat to infrastructure and health,” Rose said.

“The Great Lakes Algae Organ” is another interactive piece. The work of Jennifer Willett, director of INCUBATOR Lab and a Canada Research Chair in art, science and ecology at the University of Windsor, she works in the emerging field of BioArt. She said she’s ridden the organ — which is affixed to a bike — through the streets of Windsor and shown it at fairs, where people have been able to crank the organ and watch algae grow inside an attached fish tank.

Algae gets a bad rap; Willett said it’s a superfood and the greatest producer of oxygen on the planet.

“You can really live off of algae,” she said.

This is the first time the Michigan Science Center has offered a prolonged period of free admission, and exhibition organizers believe this will make “DEPTH” more accessible.

“We’re hoping people who come here will learn something about water and their relation to water,” Grabill said.

The Michigan Science Center is located at 5050 John R St. in midtown. For reservations or more information, visit or call (313) 577-8400.